|Chuspa, traditional coca bag|
Chewing the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) plays a significant role in traditional Andean culture. Coca acts as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is considered particularly effective against altitude sickness. It also is used as an anaesthetic to alleviate the pain of headache, rheumatism, wounds and sores. Coca leaf chewing is most common among indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in the highlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is part of the national culture, and where sharing coca leaves is a powerful symbol of social and cultural solidarity. And the consumption of mate de coca, coca tea, is common among all sectors of society in the Andean countries, and is widely held to be beneficial to health, particularly at high altitudes.
|Chewing coca leaves|
Doris Rivera Lenz, in an interview with Howard G. Charing, says that chewing coca is part of an Andean culture that knows how to make work into a sacred activity. When sharing coca, a mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from a decorated chuspa, coca bag, and mixed with llipta or ilucta, alkaline lye, while chewing, to release the active ingredients; the lye is often kept in an ishcupuro, a small decorated gourd hung around the neck, and added to the leaves with a small stick. Sharing coca leaves may be a preliminary to the sacred Andean mesa ceremony, and coca leaves play a crucial part in offerings to the apus, inti, and pachamama — the mountains, the sun, and mother earth. Coca leaves are often used for medical diagnosis and divination.
However, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classifies coca in Schedule I, along with cocaine and heroin, as substances that are considered particularly unsafe and lacking any medical use. Under Article 7(a), parties to the convention must prohibit “all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes.” This classification is based primarily on a 1950 study, widely considered to be seriously flawed, which included the coca leaf as “narcotic drug.”
|Coca leaves for sale in the marketplace|
This month, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) — a United Nations monitoring body that oversees the implementation of the UN drug control conventions — has called for the governments of Bolivia and Peru to abolish all uses of the coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing. In its 2007 annual report, the INCB asks Bolivia and Peru to make possessing and using coca leaf criminal offenses — a move that would affect millions of people in the Andes and Amazon. The INCB is heavily influenced by the United States when making and suggesting policy. The 2007 recommendation reads:
Recommendation 7: The practice of chewing coca leaves continues in Bolivia and Peru. The countries in the region are suffering from the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls upon the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing, that are contrary to the 1961 Convention. The Governments of those countries and Colombia should strengthen their efforts against the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls on the international community to provide assistance to those countries towards achieving those objectives.
|Coca leaf divination|
This recommendation has been widely criticized. Famed Amazonian ethnobotanist James Duke and pharmacologist Dennis McKenna, an expert on psychoactive substances, have condemned the proposed ban. The Transnational Institute, a group that studies drugs and conflict in the region, made the following statement: “The INCB, rather than making harsh judgements based on a selective choice of outdated treaty articles, should use its mandate more constructively and help draw attention to the inherent contradictions in the current treaty system with regard to how plants, plant-based raw materials and traditional uses are treated.”
Some of the criticisms have been quite blunt. Pien Metaal, a researcher specializing in coca issues at the Transnational Institute, put it like this: “The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures. Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?” And the International Drug Policy Consortium said, “The approach adopted in the report towards this complex and sensitive issue demonstrates a surprising ignorance and insensitivity not suitable for a UN body.”
|Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán|
Even more srikingly, legislators in Peru criticized the recommendation by defiantly chewing coca leaves on the congessional floor. Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán — activist, active member of several indigenous women’s organizations, and congressional representative for the Andean capital of Cusco — initiated the protest. “The coca leaf has existed for thousands and thousands of years,” she said. “It’s part of our agriculture, our food and our medicine. It’s sacred.” And she added: “The United Nations doesn’t know our culture. It doesn’t understand our values.” Dozens of politicians took handfuls and chewed the leaf during what has been described as “a raucous session.”
Jose Garcia Belaunde, the foreign relations minister of Peru, said that Peru’s right to chew coca leaves is protected as an Andean tradition. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who rose to power as a leader of coca growers, has pushed to have coca removed from its current classification as a controlled substance.